International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Big Fish

  1. Do the applications of “individualizing guilt” and targeting the “big fish” allow for (or even encourage) the occurrence of a scapegoat system?  Are there mechanisms in place to prevent this?  Particularly with political vs. military leaders, or higher level military leaders not directly involved in combat, it seems plausible that leaders who did not order, plan, or participate in H.R. violations could be falsely accused to fill a space, or even sacrificed by their party for some objective (i.e., hypothetically, a Croatian General no longer involved with the state is offered—since it’s unlikely victims would have seen him give orders—instead of the true perpetrator, who may still be useful in state affairs).  If so, does this matter?  In reference to the alternative of individualizing guilt, Osiel said, “then victims and the public at large would no longer be content to vent their rage on a small handful of now powerless individuals.”  If the big fish were the wrong fish, two of the three claimed roles of transitional justice would still be met and Osiel’s statement could support that the state and individual healing process & expanded dialogue should take precedence over accountability & countering denial.  And punishing essentially an effigy wouldn’t stand in the way of deterrence as long as society remained unaware. Looking specifically at this possibility, is “false justice” an acceptable compromise (regardless of courts’ knowledge or ignorance of falsity) as long as victims and society believe justice was served and move towards healing/reconciliation?
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3 responses to “The Big Fish

  1. lseyferth October 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    Amybe4 brings up the valid argument that a sort of “scapegoat system” could possibly be created when attempting to weed out the so-called “big fish” from the rest of potential perpetrators of human rights violations. However, while it is important for the public to gain a sense of reconciliation in order to begin to rebuild and return to peace, this “false justice” is in contention with the declarations and mandates made by the international governing bodies. If in fact these individuals that are being convicted are actually innocent, even in the face of crimes of mass atrocity, they are still, as human beings not receiving the basic human rights that all people deserve, namely due process before the law . However, that all being said, I understand the need for the victims and communities to heal and to find someone to affix their blame upon, even if that individual is a scapegoat. It really presents the interesting dilemma: how can we respect the rights of one individual when the rights of thousands, even millions have been blatantly abused?

    Another thing to consider when weighing the justification of the “scapegoat system” is considering the specific role of the persecuted individual and their proximity to the crimes committed. While the argument can be made that they may not have been directly involved or did not issue the order to enact such heinous crimes, they were still present in the figurehead sense of leadership and most likely did very little or nothing to prevent or reduce the crimes and abuses that were carried out. Also, when the direct individual responsible for the atrocities cannot be persecuted (because of natural death/disappearance/etc.), the public may feel as though justice was not properly served and could retaliate in manner that could mirror the abuses they first endured. It is therefore an ultimate question of what defines true justice, both for the victims and the prosecuted; what action of justice best serves for reconciliation of injustices of the past.

    • saracord October 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Lseyferth brings up the specific scenario of an accused perpetrator dying before he can be tried for his crimes, which we have seen in the cases of Slobodan Milosevic in the ICTY, and of Foday Sankoh and Samuel Hinga Norman in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
      What is to be done when the accused dies before sentencing? Though this may seem to be as futile to discuss as death is final, I believe that the impact that such a situation has on victims who need justice cannot be overlooked in the process of reconciliation. Since putting “big fish” on trial is such an integral part of justice, this is not a time to say “Oh well, better luck next time,” and ask victims to move on (not to suggest that there is ever a time for that). Rather, the other components of transitional justice should step in to fill the void left by such a death, including a continued attempt to bring the accused’s crimes to light. Such a situation reinforces the importance of grassroots transitional justice work, of providing a place and space for victims to reclaim their dignity and agency, even as a major perpetrator of injustice “gets” to die without punishment for his crimes. Even as one part of the process of transitional justice crumbles, it creates the opportunity for a new conversation to emerge both for victims and for the international community, one that reevaluates the goals and values of retribution and reconciliation, and of the ever-changing international law and transitional justice.

  2. mhdeck October 12, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Perhaps the idea of “big fish” justice does have a slippery slope to creating scape goats for society, but individualizing guilt is important for communities to heal. Moreover, criminalizing the abuses of human rights political and military elites does create a norm of behavior for society as a whole. The international community has accepted a norm that societies should not follow the demands and wishes of elites that are willing to plan and commit acts of war crimes or abuse human rights. One would argue that a fair trial would protect those who are used as puppets or sacrifices for their political parties. The international community should not accept an international justice system that is more willing to punish anyone than seek true justice and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes. It does matter if lots of individuals are being unfairly punished for crimes they did not commit because then the norm of a fair international justice system is not working. The danger of “false justice” is that allows for denial and impunity of those who are truly to blame for the crimes.

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